Note: This is part one in a series of six posts about what a book coach does. To read all six parts, click the links at the bottom of this post.
I was an athlete in high school and college – a tennis player and a squash player – and I loved almost everything about it: the clear goals, the direct line between practice and performance, the sense of community among teammates, and the unmitigated joy of executing a shot or a strategy exactly right. I haven’t actually picked up a racket (well, other than ping pong) for more than a dozen years, because I traded those joys for other ones – namely raising children, and writing books. I can, however, still close my eyes and feel what it felt like play – the rhythm of it, the power of being in the zone, the way life zoomed in on a few lines painted on the ground and a small ball.
Another thing I deeply love about athletics is the fact that no one expects you to do it alone. Even with individual sports like tennis or squash or swimming (which my kids did competitively), no one expects you to figure out how to get good all by yourself. You turn to coaches to learn the rules and the basic skills, and then you turn to them to learn how to improve -- how to move your body, adjust your mindset, understand the strategy of the game, and the psychology of your opponent.
I remember once a coach wanted me to add a spin serve to me repertoire, and in order to do it, I had to completely change the way I was serving the ball – where my feet where placed, how I gripped the racket, how I swung my arm. We broke the whole motion down and built it back up. For weeks, I felt awkward and ineffective, frustrated and angry, as the ball kept winging all over the place – into the ground, over the fence. I lost every match I played and it seemed as though I was getting worse, not better, but my coach kept making me do it again and again and again, and then when it started to work, he put tennis ball cans in the corners of the service box, and made me aim for those again and again and again until I could hit them a reasonable percentage of the time. In other words, he pushed me to practice until I mastered the skill.
You need a coach to watch and to witness so they can reflect back to you what you are doing well and what you are not doing well. You need a coach to show you what you can become, to believe that you are capable of getting there, and to guide you on that journey. With a coach, there’s a built-in belief in the process – and the promise -- of ongoing improvement.
I also played the piano and the flute as a child – badly, and not for very long – but my sister was very talented musically, and went on to earn a PhD in music theory. She, too, had coaches – choral instructors and piano teachers who listened and discerned and pushed and cajoled so that she could learn how to sing and to play. I remember listening to her play scales and snippets of nocturnes over and over and over again.
This concept of disciplined practicing in music is the subject of a fabulous essay by Penelope Trunk about her 11-year-old son’s cello audition for Julliard. Trunk talks about the critical role of a coach in the process:
“When [my son] told his teacher, Amy Barston, he was bored, she told him boredom in practice comes from a lack of engagement. She showed him how to recognize disengagement. Then she taught him to look more closely at each note and listen more deeply with his ears and his heart.
He learned to practice by changing the rhythm of the piece. He learned to play one note at a time with a tuner. He learned to play each measure with a different metronome timing, and then he played the piece so slowly it took 20 minutes instead of just four.
During these insane lessons where Amy and my son spent one hour on five notes, the more we worked on the art of practicing the more I saw that practice is a method to do anything ambitious and difficult. He learned to create a system and process instead of just focusing on the goal itself.”
We expect to have a system and a process for improvement, and coaches to get us there, in athletics and in music. We also expect to have systems and coaches in the workplace, where seasoned professionals take new employees under their wing to show them how things work.
So why, when it comes to writing a book, do we so readily ignore the concept of process, and overlook the importance of mentors who can guide us? A book is a fantastically complex creation that attempts to capture time and emotion and make a meaningful point or argument in a logical cohesive whole. It’s not an easy thing to do. Why do we imagine that we should be able to find our way alone, especially when most of us have never been taught how to do it in the first place?
Even when we seek help in writing, we tend not to seek the kind of sustained help that turns an amateur athlete into an accomplished one, or a fledging musician into someone who can command the stage. We sign up for short-term or one-off or ad hoc programs, where we may learn to write better dialogue or craft a scene or develop a pitch, but where we don’t learn to write a book.
The truth is that reading a book or a blog about writing can’t teach you to write a book. Attending a three-day conference can’t teach you to write a book. Taking a 6- or 8- or 10-week workshop can’t teach you how to write a book. Scoring a writing retreat at a beautiful cabin in the woods where they bring you lunch in a basket can’t teach you to write a book. Even getting an MFA doesn’t necessarily teach you to write a book. These endeavors do other things for writers -- give us a sense of community, teach us certain discrete skills we may employ when writing a book, provide inspiration for the journey -- but they don't get us all the way to the end goal.
You can certainly learn to write a book by trial and error, over time – I did that, several times -- but it’s not like throwing a pot on the wheel or singing a song where it might take 10 or 20 minutes to try and fail. Writing a book usually takes years, especially when you’re throwing out more pages than you keep. Trying and failing takes a significant chunk of time, and because of that, the result is that many writers don’t end up gaining the mastery they need to succeed. The frustration eats at them – because, as Maya Angelou said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Book coaching is about giving writers a better way forward – a way to learn and grow and deepen your craft under the guidance of someone who can watch and witness, who can guide you toward success, and give you a repeatable process to follow to get you closer towards mastery.
Atul Gawande, the writer-surgeon whose recent memoir, Being Mortal was a massively popular bestseller, wrote a piece for The New Yorker several years ago about inviting a fellow surgeon into the operating room to watch him operate so that – at the peak of his powers -- he could learn how to get even better, and also fend off the eventuality of getting worse. The article is called Personal Best, and it is a powerful argument for why anyone at any stage of their career can benefit from inviting scrutiny. “No matter how well trained people are,” Gawande writes, “few can sustain their best performance on their own. That’s where coaching comes in.”
Gawunde later explained the four stages of mastery at the heart of the coaching process (which you can listen to him explain in this video, but here is what he says):
“Improvement comes from taking unconscious incompetence, bringing it to conscious incompetence, and then when you’re aware of the problem, bringing you to conscious competence and then getting you so comfortable with mastering a new set of capabilities so that it becomes part of your unconscious competence. And that cycle is what we all go through over and over again as we begin trying anything that’s hard to do….
There’s deliberate practice that you have to engage in that’s technical… that makes the difference between people who get great results and people who don’t. There’s talent – absolutely to be sure, but there is no talent that comes ready-made with perfection at the kinds of complex skills that there are out in the world.
Deliberate practice is taking someone who has a set of talents and getting that person to practice deliberately what they are not good at. And what people who are great at what they do are really great at is practicing the stuff that they weren’t good at – finding it, identifying it, and being able to cycle through….
The teaching model has believed that you can figure that out for yourself… and the coaching model says, “That’s incredibly naïve.” It is unconscious failure that is the source of the problem, and you need the external eyes and ears to help you become aware of where you are.”
A book coach provides those external eyes and ears. A book coach understands that the alchemy that turns an idea into a book is a process that can be broken down, studied and improved.
Next week, I will explore why book coaching came to exist – what, in other words, changed since the golden age of great editors like Maxwell Perkins – and then I will explain what the very first thing a book coach does when they connect with a writer, and how you can learn to hone this skill, too.